Helping Kids Handle Grief and Loss

Dear Friends,

Jennie here: February always has me thinking about Loved Ones—those we love that are still here and those we love that are not. Grief and Loss are concepts that are hard for anyone to deal with. Especially, with children, parents often struggle with how to present the concepts of Grief and Loss, support their children through the process, and answer questions that pop up along the way.

I often tell families that grief and loss are like waves at a beach: constant and changing. Some days, the waves of grief are small and tickle your toes. Somedays the waves of grief are so big, they knock you down and you can’t breathe. In our house, we use the term “big wave day” to let others know that today is just hard. Parent are often surprised when their kids don’t seem sad after a loss and are even more surprised when the emotions bubble up weeks or even months later in their children.

The concept of death is something that takes many years for children to fully comprehend. We talk a lot in our office about rapid phases of growth called phases of Disequilibrium. With each phase of rapid growth, children reformat themselves at a higher level of language, cognition, skill, and awareness. It is often during these phases of disequilibrium that kids will circle back to big concepts (who am I now, death, divorce, etc.) and need more information to make sense out of the situation. Every family has their own beliefs, and I distinctly remember sitting in traffic on mopac, when my 5-year-old son asked: “Mom, do you have a face in heaven? Can you walk around and talk to people?” Great question—but a hard one to answer when you’re sitting in 5 o’clock traffic with zero braincells.

As with any important question from our kids, I want to give you a free pass as a parent to say: “That is a great question—let’s talk about that when we get home (or in the morning, tomorrow, etc.) so that I have time to really think about how I want to answer it.” Or even better, if we answer the question in the moment, circling back to our kids at some later time and saying: “I was remembering the question you asked yesterday in the car, and now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I wanted to also say…”

Picture books are always good ways to start or reinforce concepts with our kids, mostly because it normalizes the same situation happening to someone else. Even with big kids and grown-ups, pictures books can simplify and validate even the hardest concepts. Years ago, after my father-in-law passed away, I sent copies of The Invisible String to both my sisters-in-law.

Here are some of my favorite Picture Books on Grief and Loss:

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
The Memory Box by Joanna Rowland
Badgers Parting Gifts by Susan Varely
Old Pig by Margaret Wild
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie DePaolo
I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm

Especially with sudden loss, there often isn’t time to get the closure that we need. I encourage families to do some kind of project to find their own kind of closure with the Loved One they are missing: make a photo album of your favorite memories together, write them a letter, have a special dinner and eat their favorite foods…really whatever gives you peace is the best way to celebrate them.

I hope this post finds you well, and please let us know if we can support you all going forward!